This is one of those things that I think only really incurable, tragic car geeks like myself will even know what the hell I'm talking about. I've been fascinated for a while by this uniquely American car affectation, and I think it's time to talk about it in public. I'm talking about hood/fender mounted turn signal tell-tales.
Oh yeah. I'm breaking the silence.
If you're the sort of person that enjoys a healthy social life and occasionally the physical act of love with selected partners, you very likely have no idea what that string of words means. While I'm sure our site has the largest percentage of people in the known universe who do know what I'm talking about, indulge me and I'll explain it all.
See, on a number of cars — almost always American, from what I can tell — from around the late '50s up until the late '80s - early '90s, had these little light units on the leading edge of the front fenders that cast light back to the driver. These light units usually had amber lenses, and their purpose was to show the driver that their turn indicator was on and blinking.
Now, keep in mind that these little lights — known in the cool-kid indicator light community as 'tell-tales' — were in addition to the little green arrows that blink on your dash when you put on your turn signal. I suppose the thinking was that for something as critical as turn signal operation, you couldn't just rely on a blinking green arrow on the dash and a constant, rhythmic clicking sound. Oh no. You also needed another blinking light visible out the windshield as well, to really drive home the message that, buddy, your turn indicator is on.
I'm fascinated by these because I have so much trouble imagining why anyone ever decided they were needed. Were people getting in wrecks craning their necks down, taking their eyes off the road to really, really scrutinize that green blinking arrow to be absolutely certain that their turns were being indicated? Maybe? Or maybe it's all from the fear of looking like the archetypal old man indicating a left turn for 90 miles on the highway. Who knows?
What I do know is that I love these little details. There was a surprising variety of methods to accomplish this indicator tattling, with each major manufacturer having their own pet methods.
Mopar was generally pretty straightforward with theirs, using a standard little chrome hooded unit on a number of their cars, including, most weirdly, the very European-looking Horizon/Omni. This car looked basically like an Americanized VW Rabbit/Golf, with a bit more fussy chrome detailing and that sort of thing, and among those little fussy details were the little chrome turn indicator tell-tales.
Ford seemed to have employed these less often than the other two of the Big Three, but when they did it, they did it with some serious style. The best (and maybe one of the only) examples of the funny little tattling lights was on the Mustang's optional "Deluxe Hood."
The Deluxe Hood included a pair of heat-extraction vents that faced the driver, and inset into the grilles of those vents were a pair of amber lights that acted as those very same turn signal tattle-tales. What could be more desirable for a pony car than to double the driver's information regarding indicated turns? That's the kind of thing that made panties plummet quicker than any number of Dairy Queen burnouts.
My favorite implementation of these tell-tales has to be what GM did with them. GM took the basic idea and ran with it, creating something called the Vigilite Monitoring System. This was available as an option on lots of their cars, Chevelles, Camaros, but you'll usually find them on Cadillacs, where they became standard after a while.
What made the Vigilite system so much more was that it wasn't just an indicator tell-tale, it was a full-on check system for all of the car's running lights. It would tell you if any of your bulbs were burnt out without you having to endure the considerable indignity of getting out of the car and looking, like a filthy dog would.
Even better, this system was the very first use of fiber freaking optics in a mass-produced automobile. That's right, fiber optics, like what that fancy Internet uses. In this case, those optics were sending just one kind of data: light, from the bulb.
The system used no electrical contacts. Instead, cast plastic light pipes would take light from the given bulb and channel it to display in those little fender-mounted pods. Different lights would be assigned different colors. And, for the rear lights, the system had a little display pod on the inside of the car, usually mounted on the rear window surround so you could check the status of your brake and tail lights every time you glanced into the rear-view mirror.
In fact, the rear-light system was also used by Ford, who most excitingly used it for their Thunderbirds, the ones that had the huge all-the-way-across tallight with the Vegas-style sequential turn signals. Which must have made looking in that rear-view mirror at night with your signal on seem like KITT was following you everywhere.
These are bits of automotive technology long dead, and I see no chance that any new car coming out will bring these back. I'm not even sure that's a shame, because it just gives these funny little analog solutions to barely-acknowlegded problems all the more quaint and charming.
Keep an eye out for these. It's probably good luck or something when you see a car that has 'em.